Charity under Pressure: Cash, Credibility and Consumerism

Charity under Pressure: Cash, Credibility and Consumerism

Neil Serougi

The future for charity is in the balance. The assault on welfare over the last decade has been generally analysed through the prism of public service and its transformation agendas but equally, the ideological pressures of successive governments to ‘get tough’ have framed how charities now operate. The blueprint for a low taxation economy and muscular welfare society requires a political disposition that stretches across state and non-state actors alike. The implications threaten to be far reaching both in terms of the funding landscape for charities and crucially how they come to be understood in the public imagination.

How the sector responds to its challenges is not uniformly evident. Size, type and profile will shape the dynamics as will proximity to policy makers but one thing is certain, 2016 will be a tough time for many. The numbers sleeping rough and the reliance on foodbanks higher than ever. It is a time when charities will again see at first hand the ‘fall out’ from the gap between expectation and reality. For those living on the margins, the struggle to cope under the weight of more austerity, will provide a bleak backdrop to diminishing welfare support.  It will sharply bring into question the government’s claimed one nation commitment to social justice as more cuts and sanctions bite. Without doubt the forthcoming year is destined to be unremittingly hard and we should be ready for more homelessness, helplessness and unhappiness.

Such a spectre not only raises questions about Cameron’s claims about a stakeholder economy but also why, in the fifth richest country in the world, we tolerate such poverty and inequality. It isn’t because we don’t know. On the contrary, we now live and work in an information rich world where little is hidden from view. So is it because we don’t care? The answer to this question looms large on the horizon for most Charities whose risk registers see donors declining and increasing scepticism. It’s a trend that has arisen despite thousands of ordinary folk genuinely giving up their time to help those in need and reflects what appears to be a more qualified approach to the value of charitable organisations. It invites a worrying question.

Have we begun to fall out of love with charity?

It’s a dispiriting prospect but the idea we don’t care is too monochrome. Public sentiment is difficult to compartmentalise in ways which necessarily provide easy definitive answers. Rather, attitudes are complex, mirroring both personal emotions and wider societal influences, neither of which are necessarily consistent in either logic or fact, and reflecting contradictions that can merge into juxtaposed but incompatible beliefs.

The growing scepticism is partly driven by what David Sanders, in his Regius Professorial Lecture at the University of Essex, identified as an emerging civic authoritarianism in the population. This might explain why support for charities has come to be interwoven with a harsher set of societal attitudes that negatively shape attitudes around tolerance (and civic identities) that are decidedly less accommodating.

Thus, whilst public attitudes still demonstrate an empathy with the notion of charity, the overriding philanthropic ‘urge’ has been mitigated by a ‘counter instinct’ that growing numbers are exploiting our ‘good will’. This shouldn’t surprise us. The relentlessly hostile representations of those who rely on welfare has had a deleterious effect on how we understand hardship. Inevitably it has also altered the perceptions of what charities should be seeking to achieve. It’s no accident either. It reflects a political design that seeks to re-articulate civic society through a narrative of ‘skivers and strivers’.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in the bellicose confidence of the chancellor in his moral imperative to eradicate ‘dependency’. His pernicious description of those who go to work early in neighbourhoods where curtains remain closed in the homes of the ‘skivers’ has been divisive and encouraged mistrust. The corollary is that ordinary hard working people are ‘being made fools of’ and that society suffers because of the work shy and over generous benefits. Its relentless correlation of adverse outcomes to bad attitudes outside of structural failures, has invariably narrowed the criteria for what we come to think of as ‘deserving’. Reducing ‘anti-social behaviours’ to uncomplicated ‘choice and personal responsibility’ has served to create a wider discomfiture with those who cannot work or look after themselves. Worst of all, it has surreptitiously filtered a blame culture into policy circles, stretching beyond unemployment and into a wider incapacity landscape that includes mental health, disability and single parenting. No matter. From the lofty perch of market credibility, the discipline of austerity demands that poverty, disadvantage and disempowerment be laid at the door of its chief victims irrespective of capability.

The emergence of this eligibility criteria has had another consequence too. It has encouraged a view of those ‘in need’ as outsiders disconnected from our own lives. It’s a sentiment prefixed by ideas of culpability and ‘resistance to change’ as explanations for poverty, re-shaping perceptions of charitable organisations how they respond. It also reflects the growing incorporation of charities into provision and change agendas that are at times calibrated to chime with public policy re-design at the highest level. Expanding to fill the gaps left by the degrading of the welfare state, their modus operandi has been in places sub contracted into the social policy precepts of choice and cost efficiency, creating a compliancy pressure that is hard to resist not least because of the funding streams that it brings into play.

For example, the NCVO UK 2012 Civil Society Almanac identified that the sector receives £13.9bn from government, 79% of which is contracts for services; and charity spending increased in real terms by £1.1bn in 2008-10 as charities expanded their services in order to meet increased demand;

One implication stands out in particular; the pressure to meet expectations about credibility is shaped by political exigencies rather than what necessarily works in the best interests of a charity’s stakeholders. The cultural impact of this is not insignificant. It prefigures how charities may come to seek acceptance in the present climate, struggling to negotiate a growing societal reluctance to accept at face value what people may say about their own needs and circumstances.

It also appears that the more desperate the group, the harder it is to believe their legitimacy.

An analysis of 49,000 responses to the National Survey of Third Sector Organisations in 2008 showed that organisations dealing with socially excluded groups are especially vulnerable because of the relatively limited philanthropic money available.

Charities therefore find themselves operating in a landscape where support is increasingly qualified and the pressure to be more credible and professional is equated with being less naïve. It’s a pressure which has inevitably led to the introduction of a ‘philanthropic corporatism’ as a model for organisational governance. The goals remain one of charity but the means to achieve them are configured around processes consistent with a corporate rationale.

Paradoxically this trend to corporatism, whilst ostensibly a response to the public demand for charities to be more in tune with a rigorous persona and more savvy, has not increased public confidence but has had the opposite effect…and the reason is clear. With corporatisation has come a slew of stories surrounding highly publicised and damaging practices inimical to the civic imagination of charity and its motivations. The suspicion is that they have become too calculating and in some cases manipulative not dissimilar to how a ‘for profit’ organisation might pursue its goals.

The resulting ‘managerialism’ feels inimical to what charities should ‘be about’. High salaries for CEOs, Zero Hours contracts for others, selling on donor data to ‘cold calling’ agencies culminating in the use of ‘pressure selling’ techniques all spring to mind.  Crucially the marketing ethos that has come to reflect how the major charities operate in a crowded market, owes much to a model of consumerism synonymous with brand engagement and market acquisition that has been described as instrumental in the ‘Tescoisation’ of the Third Sector. The Charity Commission noted in 2014 that the resulting misgivings have coalesced especially around transparency and critically, the end use of donations. The Information Commissioner noted that there is ‘a real danger that charity is becoming a dirty word”.

So charities face a testing time ahead in 2016 with risks to survival especially for smaller organisations

Funding shortfalls from government sources (by 2015/16 the voluntary sector is likely to lose £1.2bn in government income each year) allied to the continuing impact of recession on households (of a group of around 50,000 charities annually reporting financial data since 1998, a higher proportion experienced year on year decline in real income since 2008 and for some more than a 25% decrease) will adversely impact on sustainability.

With the pressure to adopt new identities, less funding, growing scepticism and declining trust, what does the future hold for charitable organisations? One thing is certain. The demand for help and the need to create a voice amidst the government silence around exploitation and social injustice will not go away.

Developing a new ‘civic consciousness’ through which we can trigger ‘agreement’ emotions about those currently seen as outsiders is crucial. Whether it be the unemployed, refugees or the homeless, we have to recapture the narrative around why hardship and disadvantage exists. Equally important is resisting government ideologies about the need to define the undeserving through false notions of blame and self-help.

Articulating and addressing the needs of marginalised groups has to be correlated to representations and identities embraced by those constituencies who share mutual life ambitions albeit from different startpoints. It will be an uphill struggle but unless we demonstrate a plausible commonality between those who can give and those who use charity, the prospect for making a real difference will disappear in a political climate beset by doubt and undermining of the rights of those who are in perilous positions, usually not of their own making.


Neil Serougi is an independent author. He is a Trustee at the charity, Freedom from Torture. He has worked at a Board level in the NHS for 10 years, primarily focusing on ICT implementation, and was previously a Probation Officer and held office as Secretary of West Midlands Association of Probation Officers. He has also worked on the West Bank and Gaza as a volunteer with UNRWA. The present article is based on a keynote address given at a conference on Supporting Human Rights Organisations to Deliver Insights from Data held at the University of Essex, 29-30 October, 2015.

Image: Kathryn Harper CC BY-NC-ND 2.0